To vaccinate or not

26th Jun, 2017

We adopted a puppy from a rescue organisation earlier this year and although she is due for her last puppy vaccination soon, we would like to know more about the vaccination regime going forwards. Taking to the internet, there is so much controversial stuff swinging between the advice that they’re needed yearly to booster vaccinations only being needed every three (and some mention seven) years.

What would you recommend to keep our new family member safe and healthy?

Justin Lampkin – Port Elizabeth


Dr Kathryn Knipe of Bryanston Veterinary Hospital answers…

There has been much controversy surrounding vaccinations in the past few years. Many of these opinions actually stemmed from a study performed by a doctor who was later discredited and his findings were found to be incorrect.

Vaccines work by stimulating the body to produce a higher number of cells that are targeted at a specific disease, thereby allowing your pet to mount an effective immune response when it comes into contact with that disease. Puppies and kittens carry the antibodies provided by their mother for a number of weeks after birth; these antibodies interfere with their own bodies’ response to the vaccine, which can make the vaccine ineffective. This is why we don’t vaccinate pups and kittens when they’re too young and why we vaccinate at regular intervals (i.e. boosters).

For puppies, we do our first vaccination at six to eight weeks old and then every four weeks thereafter, with the final vaccine given at around 16 weeks. In kittens, we start at eight to ten weeks and continue at monthly intervals until about three months of age. This means that your puppy may receive as many as four vaccinations in his first year and your kitten two to three.

Vaccinations are important for two reasons. Firstly, by having your pet adequately vaccinated, you provide them with protection against some of the potentially fatal diseases, such as Canine Parvo Virus, Canine Distemper Virus, Feline Panleukopenia Virus, Feline Leukaemia Virus and Rabies. Rabies is very important in South Africa as it is fatal to animals and humans, and has not yet been eradicated. Vaccinating your pets for rabies is also required by law.

The second function of vaccinating your pets is the contribution towards herd immunity. This is the concept that, if the majority of animals in a given population are vaccinated, it protects those that are unvaccinated and immunocompromised due to old or very young age, malnutrition or disease by creating a barrier of vaccinated animals through which the infection cannot spread to the unvaccinated ones. This means that your puppy is far more likely to contract one of these diseases if you live in a community that does not generally vaccinate their pets.

The argument is often made that adult animals do not need to be vaccinated as they have adequate immunity after being vaccinated a number of times in early adult life. Veterinarians are sometimes accused of encouraging annual vaccination as a money-making scheme. This is simply not true. 

Your pet may in his or her early adult life build up a strong enough immunity to keep it safe from certain contagious diseases, but this is highly variable amongst individual animals in a population. In order for us to truly determine if your pet is safe against all the diseases in the vaccines we use, your vet needs to collect blood and send it to a laboratory to test it for antibody titres (levels of antibodies in the blood that indicate an animal’s immunity to a disease). Although this would be ideal, allowing us to determine your pet’s individual level of immunity and offering vaccinations with only necessary components, it is expensive. Having your pet given the core vaccines annually is far cheaper.

What’s more, it is important for your pets to receive an annual examination from your veterinarian so that they can identify disease problems early and intervene early; this is done when they go for their yearly vaccinations.

As far as the safety of vaccines is concerned, much of what is perpetuated on the Internet and social media is untrue. There’s only one vaccine that has been linked with the development of tumours: the Feline Leukaemia Virus vaccine. Apart from this, none of the other vaccines used for dogs and cats have been proven to cause tumours or other diseases. 

There is a small chance that your pet may have an allergic reaction to a vaccine. Likewise, it could have an allergic reaction to a bee-sting or to chicken or beef. The simple truth is that there are always risks as with any other treatment that your vet may prescribe but, at the end of the day, the incidence of vaccine-related complications (even including the Feline Leukaemia Virus vaccine) is infinitely lower than the incidence of the diseases we are vaccinating against.

Vaccination is recommended by virtually every veterinarian around the world and we will continue to advocate regular vaccination until there is reputable scientific evidence which proves otherwise. We do this because we care about you and your pet and want to do everything possible to keep it safe and healthy.

As to how often it should be done, some veterinarians advocate annual vaccination, some three-yearly vaccination and others alternate different vaccines every year (for example, give dogs 5-in-1 or cats 3-in-1 vaccines one year, and rabies the next). I myself have had to put to sleep family pets that contracted Canine Distemper Virus after being only six months late for their vaccinations and it’s heartbreaking. This is why I choose to vaccinate annually. Each veterinarian will follow the protocol that they believe is correct, and you should follow your vet’s instructions.

Not only does this keep your own pet safe but it also helps to decrease the incidence of these diseases in your community. Furthermore, vaccinating your pets against rabies will form a protective barrier (herd immunity), keeping you and your family safe from the disease.